With a “Parent University” program, schools can educate parents on everything from family nutrition to preparing kids for kindergarten and using technology at home. In the process, parents gain confidence and become more engaged in their children’s academic programs and the larger community.

  • Napa Valley Unified School District
  • Napa, CA
  • Rural / K-12
  • Students: 18,400
  • Staff: 760

The idea:

The motto of Napa Valley Parent University is “Making a difference – one parent at a time.” Through a partnership with Queen of the Valley Medical Center, On the Move and the Napa Valley Unified School District (NVUSD), Napa Valley Valley Parent University was created to teach parents how to become more engaged in their children’s education. Today, Napa Valley Parent University offers more than 100 free morning and evening classes on computer literacy, health and wellness, and community leadership. Partners work together to develop class schedules and line up instructors; principals at the district’s five elementary schools suggest class ideas and content and recruit teachers as instructors. Many classes are taught by teachers, staff and parents, who volunteer their time. 

About 46 percent of the district’s parents are recent immigrants and may not understand how they can play a role in their child’s education, given their lack of experience with the U.S. school system. “Parent University is the first stop for many of our families to understand the school system,” says Matt Manning, principal of Phillips Elementary School. “Before we started it, few parents volunteered in their kids’ schools. They’re now much more engaged and empowered than in the past.”Learn more about how Napa Valley Parent University empowers parents to help children succeed.

Purpose and impact:

By partnering with community organizations and parents, districts create a stronger relationship with parents, teachers, students and the wider community. These educational programs prepare parents to create supportive home learning environments and encourage their children to become confident citizens.

How it works:

  • Enlist the help of community organizations. Nonprofits or foundations with a mission to strengthen community engagement can provide the funds and resources to get a Parent University off the ground. Seek out partners with complementary expertise, and don’t be afraid to look beyond education-related institutions. By working with Queen of the Valley Medical Center, NVUSD gains access to health professionals who can create much-needed classes on family nutrition and other wellness initiatives.
  • Gain buy-in from teachers and staff. “They need to understand why the program is important, so they are accepting of the space and time requirements,” Manning says. This is especially true if much of the work is handled by community partners: teachers and staff might not understand why the program is valuable. “You have to explain that this is actually an important part of the school, not a separate program,” Manning says.
  • Solicit feedback from parents on classes they need. Before launching Napa Valley Parent University, the participating schools held focus groups to ask parents about barriers preventing them from taking part in school activities. “Include them in the process because that’s how you get their buy-in,” says Maria Ruiz, community program/service coordinator at Queen of the Valley Medical Center, who co-coordinates the Napa Valley Parent University program.

See how Napa Valley addresses parent needs in its Parent University course catalogue.

  • Eliminate barriers to attendance. Evening classes and onsite childcare allow working parents to attend. The Napa Valley Parent University program added evening classes and childcare after gathering feedback from parents. Schedule check-in meetings with school leaders and community partners. Napa Valley Parent University holds two or three stakeholder meetings throughout the year to brainstorm ways to improve the program and celebrate successes.


Parent University course categories:

  • Understanding the school system: Topics include how to have a parent-teacher conference; how to understand test scores; and how to help children transition to kindergarten.
  • Family wellness: Topics include healthy and cost-effective meals; exercise and stress reduction strategies; and accessing mental health services.
  • Capacity building: Topics include English as a Second Language; technology; and citizenship preparation.
  • Parent leadership: Topics include how to run a school event; how to become a classroom captain; and how to recruit other parents

Other resources:

  • Napa Valley Parent University video
    • Every parent wants their child to succeed. District leaders should adopt this idea as the mission of a Parent University program, and assume that by teaching parents, they can help their children to succeed.
    • Encourage parents to teach classes and take on school leadership roles – but offer support so they gain confidence in their leadership abilities.
    • Go broad when seeking community partners, so your district can address many needs. Look beyond education-focused organizations.